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My name’s Joe Davis. I run a small detective agency that handles the usual type of case found in a small town like Meadeville. Runaway mates and divorce cases our specialty. Occasionally, we get a case with more hair on it, but never anything like the one that just wandered in off the street one day.
It was a typical July afternoon when even the sidewalks were sweating. I sat in front of an open window with a small fan blowing on my face as I leaned my back against the desk with my feet on the sill. The copy of Playboy I’d been lusting at slid off my lap when the door to my inner office opened.
I jumped up and got into my desk chair and tried to look busy. The hair on my neck and arms rose as if an electrostatic charge had passed over me as I sat. I glanced up. I never should’ve done that.
A character dressed in a black robe was blocking the doorway. His face was lost in the folds of an overlapping hood.
“Come in,” I said. Never should’ve done that either.
The guy–well, he wasn’t a guy… Couldn’t tell what it was. He just stood there.
“You are Joseph Daniel Davis?” His voice was deep with gravel in it.
“Yeh. What do you want?” I didn’t like the get up. “It ain’t Halloween,” I said. Made me hotter just looking at him and besides, he give me the creeps.
“You find people?”
I didn’t like twenty questions with the door open. “Close the door and we’ll discuss it,” I said.
You can imagine my shock when he turned to close the door. A huge, long-handled scythe with the blade pointing back rested on his shoulder.
Death!
I blinked and shook my head. Couldn’t be. Some stupid prank.
I pulled my pistol from the side desk drawer where I keep it and pointed it at him just in case.
He set the scythe against the wall with a large crack in the plaster and approached my desk. Then he pushed his hood back so I could see his face. I wished he hadn’t done that. He didn’t have a face!
I froze in my chair. My pistol fell onto the desk. I had trouble breathing. Death heads do that to me.
He loomed over my old wooden desk so I had to look up at him. A skull doesn’t have any expression but I swear those empty eye sockets could see me.
I couldn’t even shudder.
“What do you want?” I did manage to croak.
He pointed across the desk at me with a fingerbone that poked out of his sleeve.
“You can stop being afraid,” he said. His jaw moved, but I didn’t see how he could form any words. His voice sounded like rocks rolling around in a tin can.
How was it I could understand him?
I tried to breathe again. I stammered, repeating, “What–what do you want?” I still couldn’t move.
“I’m not here for you,” he rattled. “I want to hire you.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” I forced the question out. “Did my ex-wife send you?” I didn’t really believe this was happening. He wasn’t real. Somehow I was being had. And I thought my vicious ex was the most likely to set me up.
“I’m not a joke,” he rattled again. “I want you to find someone.”
“How do I know you’re real?” I asked. “I don’t think death has a physical form.”
“You require proof. Very well.” He touched the pot of the only other live thing in the office, an african violet my last secretary gave me. Its meaty leaves shriveled as the lavender blossoms turned brown.
Then he turned back to me. “Do you believe now?”
I was forced to, wasn’t I? “Yes.”
“Fine. Shall we continue?” he asked.
I closed my eyes. Ah…I could move my eyelids.
As if he knew what I was thinking, my visitor said, “You can move if you want. Fear paralyzed you. Not me.”
I tried to move. I could. A little. My brain began to function, too. Well, sort of. I realized if he was Death and had come for me, I’d be gone. So maybe he was telling the truth about not coming for me. And maybe I was going to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. A guy in his line of work probably said anything he had to, to get the job done. I mean, he was one of those Four Horsemen.
“Okay, who is it you want found? And I gotta know why. For the records.” I tried not to let him see I thought I found a way to get rid of him. “And I don’t do nothing illegal.” Meanwhile, I’d try to think of how to send him on his way–without me.
He straightened and moved back from the desk a few inches. “I want you to find Calvin Desmond James. It’s his time.”
That threw me for a loop. His time? “You want me to find some guy so you can take him?”
The skull nodded.
I started to shake my head when the weirdness of the situation hit me. I laughed.
He never moved.
I started to feel uneasy. “I can’t do that. I can’t be no party to no killing.”
“You wouldn’t kill him.” Death said. “I will. He’s going to be thrown from his motorcycle and I have to be there.”
“Why do you need me?” I tried to figure this out.
“We don’t know where he is.”
Well, there went any theory I might have had. Death couldn’t find somebody? I didn’t believe that.
He read my thoughts again. “We need him.”
“Who is he that he’s so important? Why don’t you just go on to your next vic–er the next person on your list?” My body suddenly went limp. I was free. I could move so I did. I slid my chair back against the wall as far from him as I could get.
“Several years ago they hired him to program our computers–we didn’t know how–and when he was done, he said his work was guaranteed and if we had any problems to come get him. We found a problem and now we need him.”
“What’s the problem? I know several geeks who could probably fix it.”
Death shook his head. “Mr. James left his name off our list.”
“Just one guy. Why not forget him and go on to the next one?”
“He’s not allowed to live forever. He’s eighty-three now and it’s his time.”
This was really getting strange. “So because he’s old now, you gotta take him? How did you know about him at all if he’s not on your list?”
“We share data. The birth records have to match the death records. If we let him go, it becomes a bookkeeping nightmare. Always short one in the accounts closed column.” He leaned over the desk again. “That would never do.”
Death works for a bunch of bookkeepers?
“How do you know when he’s supposed to go, if he’s not in your records?” I asked. I couldn’t figure out how they could know the time a guy was supposed to go and not know where he was. Didn’t make any sense.
“The time of passing is included at birth. Each person has an allotted time. No more. Each one is different.”
“Don’t you keep track of him while he’s here?”
Death shook his head. “That’s the Life Department and they have trouble keeping their data up to date since the invention of the automobile.”
I kept quiet for a minute. Let him think I was considering taking the job. Okay. One thing sure to drive him away.
“You’ll have to sign a contract,” I told him. “It’s a standard form. I don’t take any job without a contract. I have to protect my license and, in case you don’t pay,” I figured I had him here. Death wouldn’t be carrying cash or have a credit card, “I have proof you hired me if we gotta go to court.”
No response. Nothing. Several seconds passed and then he nodded. The hood fell over his skull again.
“I’ll sign the contract,” Death said in that rolling-rock voice of his.
How could he? For a few moments I didn’t know what to do. He’d called my bluff. So I took it one step farther. “I require five hundred bucks up front for two days and expenses. I refund anything not spent and you get a copy of the expense sheet. A bill, if it takes longer than two days.”
He nodded again. The skeleton of a complete hand came out of the sleeve this time with five one-hundreds in it. He lay them on the desk.
I opened the center desk drawer and took out a contract and pen. While I had it open, I put the pistol back, then pushed the form over to him. He appeared to stare at the form for a bit and then one word appeared on the line where the client signs.
Death.
I sagged in my chair. I had Death as a client. I was stuck. I figured if I tried to weasel out now, he’d take me for spite. Besides, I needed the money.
So, okay. I had a new client. He wanted a man found. I took a deep breath and found my backbone. Yeh, I know. Bad pun.
“Do you want to know what Mr. James looks like?” Death asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. Just tell me how you got in touch with him the first time.”
He appeared to ruminate over the facts. “We ran an advertisement in the help-wanted section of the local newspaper.”
Huh?
“And he answered it?” I asked.
Death nodded, his hood fluttering in a breeze the came in my window.
I looked at the sky. A storm was coming in. There’d be lots of noise in those clouds. They were black as sin, black as Death’s robe. I’d have to close the window and then I’d roast. The landlord hadn ‘t installed the new air conditioner yet.
“How long will it take you to find him?” Death asked, interrupting my train of self-pity.
I looked at him. Well, best get it over with. “Not long,” I told him.
I pulled the cover off the computer and turned it on. I seldom used it, not being a techno-geek. It sat on a little stand in a shadowy corner out of the way. It always took a while to warm up. After a prolonged period of coffee-grinder sounds and grunts like a contented pig, the screen lit up. I clicked on the logo for my server and waited for the connection.
No, I didn’t have the speedy service. Cost too much. I only used the machine to play games and visit a few adult sites. Yeh, I know. I had too much free time. My ex-wife says the same thing. I need to get a better job…
Finally, the server answered and I was on. I brought up the search engine I favored and clicked on the name find logo. When the screen came up, I typed in Calvin Desmond James, clicked and waited.
Death seemed taller now. His hood faced the monitor. I swear his bones rattled with excitement.
A screen came up, notifying me of sixty-six Calvin Desmond James in the country.
“I’ll need Mr. James’ last known address,” I told Death as I started looking for an eighty-three year old man. The name find service I subscribed to included age, occupation, address, criminal record, date of birth, phone number, and other information.
“He never gave it to us.”
I raised my head to look at him. “How did you pay him? Didn’t he send you a bill?”
The hood moved in a negative fashion. “He was paid just as you have been.”
Great. So now I had to check all the names.
I scrolled down slowly, discounting the first fifteen. On the sixteenth, I sensed that static electrical charge again.
Death pointed at the screen. “That’s him. He’s eighty-three.”
“There might be more than one. Let me finish checking before you go rushing off and maybe get the wrong guy,” I objected. Much as I wanted him gone, I had to be sure.
He seemed to be fidgeting with his robe, but he waited. I noticed though that he moved closer to the door and his scythe.
I rolled through the rest of the list and found no more of a matching age. I scrolled back up to the sixteenth name. “That’s him,” I said. And felt sad for the guy who thought he’d fixed it so he’d live forever. But bookkeepers are a persistent bunch. They’ll spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to find a missing penny so I guess Death is one of them.
Death opened the door and turned to me. “If we ever need to find anyone else, I’ll be back.” He vanished.
Wonderful. Just wonderful.
Fini??

Copyright 2009. This story may not be copied or reprinted without permission from the author. Previosuly published in New Mystery Reader.

About the author:

Anne K. Edwards enjoys writing mysteries, but dabbles in children’s stories and other genre. She reviews for some publicists and web zines and is co-editor of Voice in the Dark ezine. She is a member of Pennwriters and Books We Love. She does an occasional editing job and loves to read. Her website is http://www.Mysteryfiction.net.

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Christopher Meeks is the author of the short story collections The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the most recent Months and Seasons. He has been a journalist, critic, playwright, and screenwriter. Currently he divides his time between writing and teaching at five different colleges. He's the editor of the ecclectic news magazine, The Maplewoods Mirror. In this in-depth interview, Meeks talks about his books, life, writing and publishing, as well as getting an agent and book promotion. 

Thanks for being here today, Christopher. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

I started as a freelance journalist and critic, writing for over twenty publications. One of my specialties was interviewing authors, which included top authors such as Colleen McCullough, Chaim Potok, Thomas Thompson and playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. When I found I was getting published faster than the checks were coming in—magazines owed me money—I looked for a full-time job and found a heavenly one. I became the Institute Writer at CalArts, an arts college in Valenica, California.

There, I edited an arts magazine, and then a quarterly where I interviewed artists of all sorts—dancers, filmmakers, theatre directors, musicians and composers, painters, graphic artists and more. I wrote about them as well as events happening at CalArts. Some of my favorite interviews include film directors Tim Burton, Werner Herzog, and Alexander Mackendrick, Pixar’s John Lasseter, theatre director Peter Sellars, actors Don Cheadle and Ed Harris, and bassist Charlie Haden.

While I worked there, I wrote plays that were produced and screenplays that were optioned. Between my bigger projects, I wrote short stories. Fiction to me felt dangerous. I didn’t have any producers or actors to help me polish my work, so what I wrote felt so naked. I kept those stories to myself until I finally started submitting them to literary magazines in the late nineties and getting them published.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which closed CalArts’ main building, and classes were taught in rented buildings all over town, I took a chance and asked a dean if I might teach a class in creative writing. He thought it was a great idea.

Watch what you wish for. I’d been a writer because I didn’t have to be in front of people. With my plays, the actors were on stage, not me. Suddenly, I found twenty pairs of eyes looking at me, saying “I dare you to teach me.” That brought more fear in me than writing had ever done. Still, I persevered. I left being the Institute Writer to teach creative writing and English. I’m proud of my teaching, especially when I see I inspire great writing. I mostly teach now in USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program.

I’m best known for my two books of short fiction, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and the recent Months and Seasons.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

As I’ve read the histories of literary blogsters on such sites as yours, I see I wasn’t as avid a reader compared to others (and probably you.) My parents didn’t want my brothers and I up reading after bedtime, but I’d sneak under my blanket to read by flashlight in fourth and fifth grade. Frankly, my English teachers pounded out of me the joy of reading.

It was only when I was in Denmark in my junior year of college studying abroad that I found myself so utterly alone that I devoured books again. At that time, I’d planned on living with my Danish girlfriend, who’d I’d met in Minnesota, but by the time I had all my studies arranged and got over there, I learned she was living with another man. She didn’t tell me until I landed. She arranged it so that I could live with her parents. Life’s odd, yes? (That loosely became the basis of an upcoming novel, The Laughter and Sadness of Sex.)

The local Danish library did not have a lot of English-language books, and the ones they had were well-known ones. I tackled Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage right away because it looked wonderfully thick. I needed escape. I then fell into Hemingway and Fitzgerald and found their stories fabulous. How had my English teachers made it seem only they could properly understand these books?

I came to make some Danish friends, and at one of their parties, I found books by Kurt Vonnegut in a bathroom, and the host let me borrow them. I became a Vonnegut fan because his stories were so different than Fitzgerald, Hemingway’s, and Maugham’s. He was having fun. Vonnegut was probably the first author who showed me that serious stories could have humor.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, Months and Seasons, and what inspired you to write such a collection.

I love writing short stories, but my first agent made it clear he wouldn’t represent a collection of short fiction because they didn’t make money. I started writing novels. I had already put together The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, however, and so I had it published independently from my agent. The book didn’t make money. However, it received some great reviews, including a mention in Entertainment Weekly and a big review in the Los Angeles Times. The agent called me to say congratulations.

Anyway, I was not going to do another collection of short stories, but someone approached me from the Beverly Hills Public Library. She wanted to present my short fiction in a special evening using actors, but the stories couldn’t be from an older book but from a new one. If I said yes, she couldn’t fit me in for three years, so I went ahead and wrote a batch of new stories at that time, which became Months and Seasons. It’s crazy to do a book just for one night of glory, but I only needed an excuse to write another collection.

The title story, “Months and Seasons,” is about a guy who will only date women whose first name is a month or season, such as April or Summer. It’s his weird notion of finding true love. I used the title of the story for the collection, though, because I realized the ages of the major characters ranged from seven to seventy-eight. The stories cover different seasons of people’s lives.

As readers will find out, the stories often have humor in them, but they are, at heart, stories of real crises in people’s lives.

Sam Sattler, one of the early reviewers of the book at his website Book Chase, compared the stories to tracks on a CD—each track solid. No filler. He and others have found the stories compelling.

Who is your target audience?

Not everyone reads short story collections. In fact, only a small percent of fiction readers do. Then again, when people receive such books as gifts, they find the short story form perfect for their busy lives. You can read a story in a short time and have a full experience. While my stories are layered so that the close reader can find much in them, the average reader, too, will find the stories involving, even fun, and relate to them. These are stories of ordinary people having the kinds of deep problems we’re all faced with.

Good stories help us reflect about our own lives, make us see things we might not normally consider. Philosopher Martin Heidegger basically said most people live life on autopilot, and it’s only when we’re “thrown” are we forced to think. I write stories about people who are thrown, letting the absurdities of our world filter in.

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

I’m both types of people. My first stories tended to be autobiographical, as is typical of most writers. Once you burn through those, what will you write about? I’m writing a mystery novel now, something I never thought I’d do. I can’t tell you how it’ll come out because it’s already becoming a quirky thing. My sensibilities are seeping in, but I’ve laid out the whole plot on paper. I’ve learned that’s what mystery writers do, and J.K. Rowling did the same thing for her Harry Potter books.

My early writing had no planned structure, but the more I've written, the more I’ve seen how one can have fun and be creative in writing an outline. It has let me “what if” to a larger degree than I would have without an outline.

Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?

I’ve learned my ideas tend to pop out in one of three places: driving, just falling asleep, or taking a shower. Those are times when one daydreams and is under no pressure to create. Your mind free-associates. I’ve learned to keep a notebook next to my bed and in the car to write down good ideas. That’s because of the times I’ve thought, “This idea is so good, so amazing, I won’t forget it.” The shower is short-term enough that I can write things down when I’m dry.

By the way, not all the ideas are always great. In the morning, I might look at my note and think, man, that’s silly. Most ideas have to make it through several hurdles.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

With novels and short stories, I write all the way through. This world has too many half-completed books because the writer wanted to get everything perfect until the end—and the book gets stalled. I took Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to heart, and I allow myself to write a shitty first draft. When you give yourself permission to be mediocre and just write write write, genius sometimes slips in.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

Getting reviewed is harder to take than I had expected, which is funny for me to say because after college, I was a book reviewer, and then a theatre critic for seven years with Daily Variety. My goal as a critic was to celebrate great writing when it came around, and to encourage other writers even if something didn’t work entirely. I would express what was weak, but I never wanted to deplete the will of a writer. I’ve since learned, it’s far easier to be a reviewer than a reviewee.

Months and Seasons has received almost all great reviews so far, which is pleasing. Tony O’Brien, a critic in New Zealand, said mostly great things, but he didn’t like all my similes and metaphors, some of which he found far out. I happen to think my comparisons can be funny—not as out there as Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) can be but along the lines of what Lorrie Moore can do. It’s hard seeing someone not “get” what I’m doing.

Then again, in a recent graduate class of mine, someone brought up The Great Gatsby, which is as near to perfection as a novel can be. Many of the students loved the book, and two hated it. If we can’t agree on The Great Gatsby, who am I to expect every critic to love my stories? Still, I get anxiety knowing reviews are in front of the public.

As a writer, what scares you the most?

That’s a good question. Plenty of writers get scared, which is why there’s writer’s block. I allow myself to write a quick fun first draft. I suppose what scares me is what I’ve seen with some other writers. Their ego gets so big, they’re not able to see what they’re publishing is weak. That’s why I have a good editor, who I hire. She’s able to keep egg off my face.

I worry that as I age, I might not have the stamina to keep up the pace I’m doing, which is writing a book a year while I’m teaching a lot. I teach creative writing among five colleges—not all at once, certainly. My hope is that as my writing brings in more money, I can teach less and write more. My fear is that might not happen.

Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?

My agent is Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York. I found him with the textbook approach: I wrote a novel, polished it as best I could, hired an editor, and went through the book a few more times. Once I thought it was worthy of showing, I wrote, polished, and obsessed over a cover letter. I sent that and the first fifty pages of my novel to ten agents, asking if I might send my whole novel for consideration.

I hoped for one positive response and received three. Some agents don’t write back, and three called or e-mailed saying they’d like to read the whole thing.

All three turned me down after reading the whole manuscript.

I sent another ten queries out, and received two more positive responses. Both read and liked the novel. I went to New York to meet them, and I really liked Jim. He pulled out a contract, and I signed.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?

Book promotion is one subject not talked about or glossed over in many writing programs. I happen to teach in USC’s graduate Master of Professional Writing program, which offers a class called “The Business of the Business.” That at least gets students thinking about what they’re actually going to do after they graduate. The best thing I recommend is learning how to write a fabulous one-page query or cover letter. My letters have opened more doors than anything. A good letter is your calling card.

But that’s only the start as I’m still learning with my two books of short stories. There’s so much one can do in marketing. I highly recommend the book The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson. It gives one specifics.

The biggest challenge is in getting reviewed. There are over 200,000 books that make it into Books in Print each year, and yet even major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times only review maybe twenty books a week. That’s just over a thousand books a year. Now that literary websites have popped up, new opportunities have arisen, but how much can a single critic read and write about each year? Eighty? That’s a lot. To give perspective to college freshmen, that’s like writing eighty literary essays a year (if it’s done right).

So if you’re a writer, ask yourself how much are you willing to put yourself out there in terms of promotion? I have a publicist for Months and Seasons, a person who’s lovely and means well, but she’s made only four placements in six months. Actually, that’s probably an amazing thing, considering I have a book of short stories. My own efforts at marketing have inspired another eight reviews so far.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write in the same spot at the same time each day. The late author Thomas Thompson told me that. He was a best-selling author before he died. He’s best remembered for his nonfiction books Blood and Money and Serpentine and the novel Celebrity.

For a while right out of college, my specialty was interviewing authors and getting my interviews published. Tommy Thompson was my first, and the interview appeared as a cover story in Writer’s Digest. He gave me the advice, and it’s worked.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

My website is www.chrismeeks.com and there’s another at http://www.redroom.com/author/christopher-meeks. I also write a monthly newsletter about life and writing called “The Maplewoods Mirror.” For a free subscription, fill in the form on my first website—just your name and e-mail address is all I need.

Thank you for your questions.

Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Christopher. Best of luck with your books!

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When did you decide you wanted to become an author? Do you have another job besides writing?
I started writing books around the year 2000. My first novel, Corporate Porn, was published in 2005 through Silverthought Press. During the day I work in the corporate world of New York City.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write it.

Emotionless Souls is a short story collection of twenty tales. Stories of pick pockets, aspiring adult movie stars, and co-workers suspected of stealing cocaine make up this collection of transgression fiction. Despite each story standing on their own, all relate in that you find characters in dark places finding redemption in the most unconventional of ways.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

Regardless of the length of story I write a high level outline. For whatever reason I need an ending, even though I rarely go with my initial thought of an ending. Once I have my “crutches” in place I am usually able to flow through the writing of the story, rarely looking back at my initial notes.

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

Approximately five months. It just happened that I had all of the stories ready to go and Brown Paper Publishing was looking for a specific collection that just so happened to be Emotionless Souls.

Are you a disciplined writer?

Yes, in that when I’m writing a novel or story I continue to work until finished, binging if you will. No, I may take notes for months and until I’m ready to start a novel I will not write one sentence, only notes.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

Initially it was difficult. For my first novel, Corporate Porn I had to deal with a lot of rejection from agents and publishers until finally finding a great match in Silverthought Press. As far as advice: Keep writing and be persistent, I am proof this works.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
http://www.davidsgrant.com

Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

Bleach|Blackout, my rock and drug fueled double novel is now available through Offense Mechanism, an imprint of Silverthought Press. Bleach details the character Jeremy returning home to the Midwest for the holidays, reliving past New Year’s Eve parties, leading up to the mother of all parties. Blackout, the sequel takes the reader two years after Bleach. The crew is in Las Vegas for an incredible bachelor party and wake up with the worst possible hangover: A police officer standing over them with guns drawn.

Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!

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Hi all,

For those of you who read Mary Castillo’s excerpt, “Por un Amor” and participated in her drawing, the winner of the $10 Starbucks Gift Card is………. Kristine H !!!!!

And now for my story… After reading it, simply answer the question at the bottom for a chance to win a box of yummy Belgian chocolates. The winner will be announced tomorrow on Jamie Martinez Wood’s blog. Good luck! I hope you’ll enjoy my dark (and yes, a little creepy) Valentine’s Day story!

The Painting
by Mayra Calvani

I was sitting in front of the fire with The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes on my lap. It had been a rough semester, without let up, and my only escape from the constant pressure was my crime and mystery collection. All day, I’d looked forward to reading the stories in the book. This particular book was a limited, leather-bound edition which I had purchased at the famous 221b Baker Street—now the official Sherlock Holmes Museum—on a short visit to London a couple of weeks ago. The illustrations were the original ones from The Strand Magazine, and were so engaging I could look at them for hours. I had also bought a little bust of Holmes; this one stood proudly on top of the mantelpiece.

It rained heavily outside and the wind blew like the endless howling of a wolf. I still had not gotten used to the Belgian weather. I sneezed for three times in a row and cursed whoever was up there in that idealized cave they call heaven. This cold was not getting any better. I could picture the savage battle going on inside my body. I was obviously far behind on the battle field, my little cells running away like cowards. I had to eat better and stop drinking so much. At least I didn’t smoke or drink coffee.

I focused my watery eyes on the page and another sneeze came out like an explosion. Then the sweetest sensation made me float in the air and settle down again. I thought I had reached salvation. I put the book down and stared at a small cockroach crawling up the wall. I wished I could defy gravity like that. The intruder disappeared behind a bad painting of a clown. I hated clowns, but the painting came with the apartment. The first day I moved in I tried to take it off, but the damn thing was completely glued to the wall. It was a clown like any other clown. That’s why I despised it so much. It had a broad smile on its face and sad looking eyes. But if you looked closely you could see that it wasn’t really smiling and that its tightly shut lips were the embodiment of solemnity.

“Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day,” it mocked me.

Big deal. I glared at it. If the clown thought it was going to have some power over me, it had another thought coming. Valentine’s Day was another capitalist invention to steal money from the ignorant masses. Hearts and roses everywhere. Sickening.

From the apartment above mine came the irritating sound of high heels clicking on tile floor. Oh no. Not now. This cold was unbearable enough as it was. I certainly didn’t need the help of my noisy upstairs neighbour to turn my headache from bad to splitting. Everything the woman did was noisy. She constantly fought and argued with her husband, and her hobby seemed to be moving furniture from room to room, which by themselves were pretty normal activities, but she had a strong preference to do these after midnight. Flushing the toilet at three o’clock in the morning seemed to be another of her favourite pastimes. Maybe in another building this would not have been a problem, but here the walls were made of paper. I could hear everything—even her piss in the middle of the night. What a way to wake up, with a sensation of drowning.

The clicking continued for about ten minutes. I finally put the book down. What on earth was she doing? Walking up and down her corridor for the sole purpose of driving me mad? Maybe she was trying to hypnotize me with the monotone clicking. In an absurd way it seemed to be working. I could hardly keep my eyes open.

Silence.

I sighed. I was so tired and drowsy from the medication I fell asleep with the book on my lap.

***

The sound of loud voices woke me.

I glanced at my watch, trying to fight disorientation. It was almost midnight. I had slept for sixteen minutes. My body felt as though it had been clobbered while I slept.

A major fight was going on upstairs. I recognized the baritone voice of the husband. Some time during the past sixteen minutes he had come back home. He kept shouting and she lashing back in a whining voice. To make matters worse, they were Italian and were using their native tongue to “communicate.” She began sobbing, which seemed to send the husband into an even greater fury.

To appease my murderous thoughts, I rose and staggered into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of orange juice. After finishing a glass, I calmly fetched the mop from the small kitchen closet. Then, like a madman—hair messy and oily, the shadow of a one-week old beard covering my face, wrinkled bathrobe stained with juice—I began to hit the ceiling in a frenzy.

Finally I stopped.

I looked up to the ceiling, which was marred with dents.

Silence.

Feeling much better, I set the mop against the wall and went back to sit by the fire, the only place at the moment which seemed warm enough for my feet. I turned the armchair a little to be closer to the burning logs, which kept crackling and sputtering.

I, a sensible, practical person, tried to consider the situation logically. Ever since I had moved in, two months ago (I was an exchange student from the University of Bridgeport), I’d had to endure the continuous noise from my upstairs neighbours. I had complained to the building manager twice, to no avail. I had even walked upstairs and talked to the lady—a suntanned woman with coppery hair, buttery teeth and insane-looking green eyes. Her eyes reminded me of a one of those marsupial night creatures which live in constant terror of being eaten. Maybe her look had to do with her husband. In any case, we had been unable to communicate. She spoke no English. She did ask, using sign language, if I spoke French or Dutch. I shook my head. In the end I tried to get my message across in Spanish, but there was no way getting through to her, so I came back downstairs. Since that day all I’d been able to do was hit the ceiling when it got too unbearable. I didn’t want to move out, either. The rent was okay for a sophomore literature student from abroad and I had fallen in love with the fireplace, which was the perfect place to read mysteries.

I got the terrible sensation of wanting to sneeze, but nothing came out. I dozed off for a little while longer, but not before scowling at the painting of the clown, which, once again, appeared to be mocking me. I turned back to the fire. From the corner of my eye I caught movement. I glanced back at the painting, but everything looked normal.

At about two in the morning I managed to pull myself from the armchair and stagger to my bedroom.

Not bothering to pull the covers over me, I collapsed face-down on the hard European (must have been imported from Russia) mattress and shut my eyes.

Not much later something made me stir… the faint yet distinct sound of moaning. Apparently they had decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day early. Their bedroom was above mine. I endured the whole thing, complete with the crescendos and grand symphonic finale. Moments later the not-to-distant sound of piss came from the toilet upstairs. Flushing.

The piping system had been built in a way as to give the impression of a Tsunami each time the toilet was flushed.

Too weak to open my eyes, I cursed inaudibly, my head still plastered to the sweaty pillow.

***

The next day, when I saw I was not better, I realized I had the flu. I had missed the last two days of school and it looked as though I’d have to miss the rest of the week. After a skimpy breakfast of toast and juice, and two tablespoons of cold medication, I went to the living room to prepare a new fire.

As I crouched and began to arrange the logs, I heard the whisper… Happy Valentine’s Day.

I stopped moving, startled.

The sound had come from my apartment, not from upstairs. In fact, the whisper had come from the same room. I glanced about the room, my eyes finally settling on the clown. In some bizarre way it seemed to reach deep into my soul, somehow absorbing the essence of who I was and reflecting it back at me. I averted my eyes.

When the fire was ready I sat in the armchair and extended my cold feet close to the flames. I reached for the leather-bound book on the little table beside me and opened the page at the bookmark.

After reading a few lines I put the book down. It was very quiet and I wondered what my upstairs neighbour was up to. Her silence somehow made me restless. Maybe she had gone out. I tried to concentrate on “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” but found the effort exhausting.

Since the cold medication wasn’t having any effect on my symptoms, at noon I took a double dose. Holmes used to take cocaine and even heroine; that was much worse. Then I took a glass of water with me into the living room and stood in front of the painting. I took a sip and held the glass in front of my eyes and saw the image of the clown through it. The image was nothing but a mass of hazy colors forming something indefinite.

Then I heard it, the exquisite clicking of stiletto heels on tiles. I looked to the ceiling. I sighed. I wanted this to happen. My whole being longed for it. My attitude could be compared to victims of kidnappers who in some deranged way grow attached to their tormentors.

Almost involuntarily, my eyes returned to the clown. I thought it had called my name. It was smiling as usual and looking at me. No matter where I was in the room, it would always be looking at me. A sharp pain in my temples blinded me for a moment. I felt dizzy and had to hold the back of the armchair for support. Yes. I was right. It had called my name and now it was talking to me. Its mouth was moving and it had no teeth. Inside its red mouth there was only a black empty space. I wondered how it could talk and still smile like that.

Slowly I went out of the apartment and crossed the empty, windowless hall towards the stairs which led to other floors. Once on the upstairs hall I was happy to see that it also was empty. My heart thudding, I knocked on my neighbour’s door and waited.

A moment later the door opened and I gazed with fixed fascination at the color of her hair—only a consummate professional could achieve such an unnatural hue.

She appeared to recognize me, displayed her buttery teeth, and began talking in another language—probably Italian, though it might as well have been ancient Sumerian. She moved her hands in all directions as she talked, and gestured me to come inside. Not uttering a word, I obeyed. She continued her enigmatic speech. The vibrations of her voice entered my ear as if they were coming from another dimension. My body felt as hot as a kitten’s belly, and my head as if it had been implanted with electric wires.. I just wanted her dead.

I fixed my eyes on her neck and silently closed the door behind me (I grasped the knob with my robe, not to leave fingerprints; I’m not an imbecile) as she bent over to pick up a cleaning rag from the floor.

In spite of my drowsiness, my hands felt incredibly strong.

***

Later that evening I sat by the fire and wrote what I had done, a fictional confession of sorts. I filled seven pages of longhand, doctor-like scribbles only I could decipher.

I glanced at the painting. Earlier I had covered it with a sheet. The clown could stare at me no more.

The door bell rang and, papers clutched to my chest, I got up and went to answer it.

Though I had been expecting them, my heart skipped when I saw the two Belgian policemen standing outside my door.

After I made it clear I spoke only English and Spanish, they quickly introduced themselves in English and stated the reason for their visit. My upstairs neighbour had been strangled and they wanted to know if I had seen or heard anything.

I adopted a surprised expression and shook my head.

“Did you know her?”

“I saw her just once. I’ve been living here for only two months,” I said. “Though I could often hear her. She was always fighting with her husband—I assume it’s her husband. That’s the reason I once met her. I went upstairs to ask them to keep their voices down. It was late and he was shouting and she was screaming. In fact, I almost called the police that night. They had a big fight last night, too. It sounded pretty bad. If you ask me, I think the husband was abusing her.”

One of the policemen wrote furiously on a note pad.

The other policeman glanced at the papers I held against my chest.

“I’m studying for an exam,” I said.

The policeman nodded. He looked like a toy policeman. Both of them did.

“Ironic, huh? To be murdered on Valentine’s Day. That husband of hers, he must be a poet.”

After several more questions and answers, they apologized for the inconvenience and said goodbye.

Holding my confession close to my heart, I closed the door and went back to sit by the fire.

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” I murmured. One by one, I fed the pages to the flames. Even Holmes would have been proud.

***

©2008. Mayra Calvani / All Rights Reserved.. This story may not be copied nor printed in any form without permission from the author.


Now for the question: What does the protagonist have clutched against his chest when the police come to pay him a visit?

To enter the drawing, simply email me your answer at mgcalvani (at) hotmail.com. Good luck!

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